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MinXSS CubeSat fills critical gap in measuring the sun

September 30, 2016
NASA Administrator, Charlie Bolden (left), visited with some of the MinXSS students in 2014, providing insight and advice in developing the mission. More than 45 University of Colorado Boulder students have worked on MinXSS. (Courtesy University of Colorado Boulder/LASP)

NASA Administrator, Charlie Bolden (left), visited with some of the MinXSS students in 2014, providing insight and advice in developing the mission. More than 45 University of Colorado Boulder students have worked on MinXSS. (Courtesy University of Colorado Boulder/LASP)

A bread loaf-sized satellite, designed and built by University of Colorado students, has been collecting data since its deployment from the International Space Station on May 16 and is providing observations of the sun at unprecedented wavelengths and resolution.

The Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer (MinXSS)—a 30cm x 10cm x 10 cm, 3-unit satellite—is the first ever science CubeSat launched for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and has already met its minimum mission science criteria for data and observations.

MinXSS makes measurements of events erupting from the sun, called solar flares, which can disrupt Earth’s upper atmosphere and impede radio and GPS signals traveling through the region.

Specifically, MinXSS is filling a gap that exists in solar observations by collecting data of the soft x-ray (SXR) band of spectral irradiance at resolutions not obtained previously. MinXSS is providing up to 100 times more spectral information in the SXR range than data provided by previous NASA missions, and scientists are using MinXSS data to calibrate the wide range of measurements taken over previous decades.

The SXR data is important because it reveals information about the sun’s atmosphere (called the corona), its temperature, density, and chemical composition. By allowing scientists to trace how events like flares and other processes heat the surrounding material in the sun’s atmosphere, MinXSS is contributing information to a long-standing mystery about the sun: Why is the corona so much hotter than its surface?

LASP Research Scientist James Mason was the lead student for the MinXSS project.

“We’re lucky at LASP to have all the pieces in place to make for successful science missions on CubeSat platforms,” Mason said. “We’ve had two high-profile successes so far and have more CubeSats in the near-term pipe, plus lots of new proposal ideas.”

The second flight model (MinXSS-2) has completed testing and is scheduled to be delivered in early December for a January 9, 2017 launch date.

This video was made using Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer (MinXSS) data from a low-intensity solar flare that occurred on July 21, 2016, and imagery from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). On the graph, pre-flare levels are shown in red, and the yellow line is the flare spectrum in real-time. MinXSS saw energy and brightness increase during the solar flare, which is apparent in the corresponding SDO images when a loop of solar material rises from an active region on the sun and shines brightly. Scientists use these flare measurements to trace the temperature, density and abundance of solar flare material during a flare. (Courtesy NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/LASP/MinXSS/SDO/Joy Ng, producer)

CubeSats are becoming a key component of our constellation of Earth- and sun-observing satellites. They are not only small, but can be built at a relatively low cost and can take narrowly-focused observations to answer critical science questions. Public and private organizations are providing more opportunities to launch small satellites by offering inexpensive access to launch services and by funding developmental programs.

A paper with a comprehensive set of results is expected from the MinXSS team in the next few months. In the meantime, all data collected by MinXSS since its deployment are available on the LASP website: http://lasp.colorado.edu/home/minxss

LASP professionals and faculty in the CU-Boulder Aerospace Engineering Sciences department serve as mentors for the students involved in the design and operation of MinXSS. The MinXSS team also includes scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the Southwest Research Institute, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The NASA Headquarters Heliophysics Division manages CubeSat activities for the Science Mission Directorate.

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